My six-year old, Ryan, was the sensitive one. The middle-child-between two brothers Keegan, three, and Jordan, eight --Ryan never would leave anyone out of a game. He was always thinking of other people before himself, praying for them, even. Still, my husband, Mark, and I were surprised when we walked in the front door after work one day four years ago and Ryan immediately announced, "Mom, Dad, I need seventy dollars!"
"What for?" I asked.
"For people in Africa." Africa? "They don't have clean water to drink. We heard about them in school today. My teacher said it would cost seventy dollars to dig them a well. So can I have it?"
"Honey, we'll have to talk about this over dinner," I said.
Ryan was even more excited at the table. "Today our teacher told us poor people in Africa drink bad water from swamps and streams and get sick and die. If I can get seventy dollars, they can make a well in the ground to drink from."
I didn't know what to say. I was proud of my son's generosity, but the world just doesn't work that way. It's not made of sweet innocent people like Ryan. He didn't understand that no one in Africa goes around digging wells for a first grader in Canada. He's only six, I thought. Maybe he'll forget about it.
As usual Ryan kneeled at his bed that night and prayed, "Please, God, bless Mom and Dad and my brothers." Then he added, "And let there be clean water for everybody in Africa." Okay, maybe he won't forget so easily. But I don't want him to get hurt or disillusioned.
Mark and I discussed what we should do. "He wouldn't learn anything if we just gave him the money," Mark said. "But we could encourage him to earn it."
Mark and I sat down with Ryan. "We can't give you seventy dollars," I said, "but if you want, you can earn the money by doing extra chores, in addition to setting the table, feeding the dog and making your bed." Ryan's face lit up. I found an old cookie tin and put it on top of the refrigerator. I said, "We'll put all the money you earn in here." I drew a thermometer with lines broken up into 35 spaces, and put it on the wall. "Each of these spaces stands for two dollars, Ryan," I said. "For every two dollars you earn, you can color a space."
Ryan washed windows, swept the garage and picked up branches after an ice storm. He was an average student, but when he brought home an improved report card that spring, we gave him an extra five dollars, which he immediately put in the cookie tin. Each night, his prayers would end with the now-familiar "And please help me get clean water for the people in Africa."
I kept waiting for Ryan to tire of the chores or get bored with the blank spaces on his thermometer. But he kept plugging away, even helping the neighbors with their yardwork. Ryan picked up a few more dollars collecting pinecones with his brothers for my mother to use in her craft projects.
A few months later, Ryan looked as if he might actually fill in all the spaces on the thermometer. Who do we give the seventy dollars to? I thought. I called my friend Brenda, who worked for an organization that helped developing countries around the world, and quickly filled her in on Ryan's well project.
Brenda, Ryan, and I went to WaterCan's office that April. Ryan struggled under the weight of the cookie tin, but he was determined to present it to the director, Nicole Bosley, himself. "Here's seventy-five dollars I earned," he said. "Please use it for a well in Africa. There's an extra five dollars. Maybe you could use it to buy the workers some lunch."
"Thank you, Ryan," Nicole said. "Your gift means a lot, but I have to tell you this much money will only buy a hand pump. To drill a well actually costs about two thousand dollars." Ryan didn't seem fazed by this news at all. "That's okay," he said, "I'll just do more chores."
That night I discussed Ryan's latest hurdle with Mark. "It took him four months to raise the seventy dollars," I said. "He'll never reach two thousand."
"He's come so far already, " Mark said. "We can't let him down now." God, I prayed, please look after my son. I don't want him to get his heart broken. Brenda wrote a story that appeared in our local paper, the Kemptville Advance, about Ryan's project. Funds trickled in from sympathetic readers.
Later that spring, Ryan turned seven. The chores continued. I loved his dedication, but I knew he was setting himself up for a fall. All Ryan's hard work was only earning him a few dollars a week.
Still Ryan kept up his hard work throughout the summer, and early that fall the Ottawa Citizen ran a story about "Ryan's Well." Then a TV station did a feature on him. Checks flooded WaterCan's office and one-made out to Ryan-arrived at our home. "All you have to do is sign the back," I explained. Ryan looked upset.
"Honey," I said, "it's okay to print." He let out a relieved sigh, and I sat beside him as he carefully printed his name. Thanks to contributions, Ryan was approaching the $1,000 mark, but $2,000 still seemed too much to hope for. Ryan on the other hand, was confident as ever. He had put so much of himself into this cause, I was really starting to worry he might get hurt.
I received a call from Nicole that week. "Susan, I have great news," she said. "WaterCan works with the Canadian International Development Agency and they matched Ryan's funds two to one!" The goal of $2,000 had been reached! "Now I'll speak to the Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief (CPAR) about digging the well." Ryan practically danced around the house in jubilation.
Ryan and I were invited to a special WaterCan meeting. A slightly built man with dark hair and eyes walked up to Ryan. "I am Gizaw Shribu, the CPAR director for Uganda," he said. "I understand you are the boy who got us a well." The two new friends talked about where Ryan wanted his well to be drilled.
"I'd like it to be near a school," Ryan said, "so kids could take water home everyday." Gizaw showed him a map and they picked a location for the well, Angola Primary School. Gizaw explained that the well would be dug by hand, because even a small drill costs $25,000. "Maybe I can start raising money for a drill so you can build more wells," Ryan said. Here we go again, I thought.
Ryan immediately got back to fundraising. Keegan helped out by licking stamps and sealing envelopes, and Jordan lent a hand with the audiovisual equipment for Ryan's presentations. Ryan's second grade class got in on the excitement when their teacher put a donation can in the room. After his homework, Ryan went out to speak at several different service clubs.
I listened as Ryan explained that getting others to help was "sort of like a dandelion. When the wind blows, the seeds go everywhere. I'm trying to let people know they need to help out, too." The seeds were going everywhere, even I had to marvel at Ryan's progress.
The more Ryan spoke, the more donations came in. His teacher also started a pen-pal campaign between her class and the Anglo Primary students. Ryan ran home one day, excitedly waving his first letter in carefully printed English, it read: "Dear Ryan, my name is Jimmy Akana. I am eight years old. I like soccer. Our house is made of grass. How is Canada? Your friend, Jimmy Akana." Ryan wrote back that very night, and letters and photos began zipping back and forth between Angolo and Kemptville.
In January 1999 we received word that Ryan's well was helping a great many thirsty villagers. Ryan was thrilled, but his prayers told me more that night. "God, please look after my friends Jimmy and Gizaw, and let me see my well some day." It never occurred to me Ryan might want to see his well. He had me believing nothing was impossible. But he even knew, this would take a miracle. We explained to Ryan that we could start saving for a trip to Uganda but he might be 12 years old before we'd save enough.
That summer, Ryan, Mark, Gizaw Shibru and I sat in the back of a pickup truck bouncing along a dirt road in Uganda. We approached a village and heard chanting. At first I thought it was some local ceremony, but as we drove closer I make out the words: "Ryan! Ryan! Ryan!" Hundreds of people lined the road chanting my son's name.
Ryan couldn't believe it. He kept saying, "They know my name?"
Gizaw laughed. "Everyone around here knows your name, Ryan."
We rounded the final corner and got out of the pickup. The dirt road was lined with scores of children in blue and white uniforms, all clapping in unison as my son made his way toward Angola Primary School. Village elders came forward. "This way Ryan, come see your well." They lead Ryan to the well, which was adorned with flowers. He knelt to read the inscription at its base: Ryan's Well, Funded by Ryan H. Ryan raised his head and looked at me, his eyes wide.
"Ryan!" We turned to see a boy grinning expectantly.
"Jimmy!" Ryan shouted. The two pen pals leapt into each other's arms. They grasped the well handle and pumped forth a cool stream. Ryan and Jimmy cupped their hands to catch the water. As they drank, I remembered how I'd set out to teach my son a lesson about hard work. Really the lesson had been mine to learn. I saw for myself how far Ryan's sensitivity and faith had taken him-all the way to Africa. I couldn't wait to see where it would take us next.